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Ken Kercheval, the stage-bred actor who portrayed Cliff Barnes, the oil tycoon who was repeatedly bested by Larry Hagman’s J.R. Ewing, on the long-running CBS primetime soap opera Dallas, has died. He was 83.
A spokeswoman at the Frist Funeral Home in the actor’s hometown of Clinton, Indiana, confirmed his death in a brief conversation Wednesday with The Hollywood Reporter but would not divulge any details. His talent agent, Jeff Fisher, also confirmed the news. Messages left for two of Kercheval’s children were not immediately returned.
The Daily Clintonian newspaper reported that he died Sunday evening.
In the 1960s, Kercheval appeared in the original Broadway productions of Mike Nichols’ The Apple Tree and Harold Prince’s Cabaret after distinguishing himself as the young college professor (George Segal’s role in the movie) in a national touring production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Kercheval also played one of the unorthodox cops who battles crime in New York City in the Roy Scheider-starring The Seven-Ups (1973) and showed up in other films like Pretty Poison (1968), the adaptation of John Updike’s Rabbit Run (1970), Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976) and F.I.S.T. (1978).
Kercheval and Hagman were the only two castmembers who were on Dallas through its entire 1978-91 original run, from pilot to finale. He appeared on 342 of the Lorimar series’ 357 episodes in its first incarnation — and directed a pair of installments as well — before returning as Cliff for a 1996 telefilm and for TNT’s 2012-14 reboot.
Kercheval was originally cast as Jock Ewing’s illegitimate son Ray Krebbs (Steve Kanaly eventually played that part) but won the more pivotal role of Cliff Barnes, the brother of Victoria Principal’s Pamela Ewing. His character always got trounced and humiliated by J.R. — until the 14th and final season, that is.
“J.R. was coming after my ass all the time, so I always had to defend myself,” he said in a 2012 interview. “If I did something that wasn’t quite right, it’s because I had to.”
In a bizarre 1989 incident when the show was in production, a disgruntled former business partner of Kercheval’s in a popcorn company crashed the gate at Lorimar Studios in Culver City and set fire to his truck before killing himself with a shotgun. (None of the series’ actors were on the lot that day.) Police believed the man was out to kidnap Kercheval.
He was born on July 15, 1935, in Wolcottville, Indiana, and raised about four hours south in Clinton. His father was the beloved town doctor and his mother a registered nurse. As a teenager, he often was with his dad in the operating room and once put two stitches in his sister Kate when she had an appendectomy. “That wouldn’t be allowed today,” he said.
Kercheval attended the University of Indiana, not to become a doctor but to major in music and drama. He later studied at the University of the Pacific and, starting in 1956, at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York under Sanford Meisner.
“He was one of those guys who was going to be the next James Dean,” David Jacobs, the creator of Dallas, said.
In 1959, Kercheval performed in a large cast that included Dustin Hoffman in an off-Broadway production of Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End, then made his Broadway bow in 1961 in The Young Abe Lincoln.
A year later, he appeared on episodes of the TV dramas Naked City and The Defenders, then landed a regular gig as Dr. Nick Hunter on the CBS soap opera Search for Tomorrow.
In 1968, Kercheval joined Cabaret to play the young American writer Clifford Bradshaw in the role originated by Bert Convy. (The character was made British for Michael York in the 1972 film adaptation.)
On Dallas, his glutton-for-punishment Cliff had an affair with J.R.’s wife, Sue Ellen (Linda Gray), during the second season. He later proposed to her, only to be turned down in yet another victory for his nemesis.
“From the very beginning, Cliff would always get defeated by J.R.,” Kercheval once said. “Finally, I went to [writer-producer] Leonard Katzman and said, ‘I’m not sure exactly how to play this, because for this guy to keep coming back again and again, he’d have to have gotten a lobotomy.’
“I thought as an actor, ‘How am I going to have an audience believe that this guy is not some imbecile who keeps coming back, [only] to get whipped? I thought the only way is to add some humor to it, just to say, ‘Dust yourself off, get up and start all over again.'”
In 2012, Shaun Chang wrote all about Cliff’s evolution on his Hill Place blog.
Before and after Dallas, Kercheval appeared on other series like Kojak, The New Mike Hammer, Starsky & Hutch, L.A. Law, Crossing Jordan, Diagnosis: Murder and ER.
A two- or three-pack-a day smoker, Kercheval had a part of his lung removed in 1994 after he was diagnosed with cancer. (He also said he was a “practicing alcoholic” for 20 years before he gave up drinking.) An avid collector of Americana, he owned the inkwell that Abraham Lincoln dipped his pen into to sign the Emancipation Proclamation.
Kercheval said that Dallas viewers over the years often asked him when Cliff was “finally going to get J.R.” His answer, delivered with all sincerity — “This Friday night!” — surely got them to tune in.
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